By Christine Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN, CSSD
Active people don’t want to think about injury, but anyone who participates in sports knows that muscle pulls, sprains, broken bones, stress fractures or orthopedic surgery may sideline you for a while. What you eat after injury can help you recover from surgery, heal wounds, and strengthen bones and muscles to get you back on your feet and back to an active lifestyle.
When injury strikes and you have to limit your physical activity, make sure to cut down on portion sizes to compensate for decreased calorie burning. No need for the post-workout protein shakes or energy bars to fuel your workout; instead, eat nutrient-rich foods 3 to 4 times a day to provide the needed vitamins and minerals without extra calories from pre- or post-workout snacks.
Focusing on high quality protein foods that contain all of the essential amino acids aid wound healing and keep your immune system strong. If you’ve had orthopedic surgery, it is normal for your appetite to be depressed so eat a small amount of protein at each snack and meal. Eggs, low-fat cheese or cottage cheese, yogurt and chicken noodle soup, all provide quality protein and are usually well-tolerated in the early days after injury or surgery. Vegetarians can get quality protein from soy-based foods. Almond milk is popular, but it is low in protein compared to cow or soy milk. Protein is not just for muscle building; it is a key nutrient in bone building. So, if you have a fracture, make sure to include protein with every meal and snack.
Vitamin C and Zinc
While all nutrients are important in healing, vitamin C and zinc are superstars for their roles in healing. Vitamin C is needed to make a protein called collagen and is needed for repairing tendons, ligaments and healing surgical wounds. Citrus fruits are high in vitamin C; however, don’t overlook other sources of vitamin C, such as strawberries, kiwi fruit, baked potatoes, broccoli and bell peppers. Zinc is a mineral found mostly in animal foods — meat, fish, poultry and dairy foods — but it is also present in whole-grain breads and cereals, dried beans and peas (legumes), and nuts. It is better to get zinc from foods than supplements, especially because high-dose zinc supplements can cause nausea and vomiting.
Vitamin D and Calcium
Calcium and vitamin D are nutrients associated with healthy bones. So, if you have a stress fracture, make sure to get plenty of these two nutrients to strengthen your bones. The best sources of these nutrients are low-fat dairy foods. Fat-free milk has slightly more calcium than full-fat or low-fat milk and is fortified with vitamin D to help absorb calcium. Yogurt, also a good source of calcium, is not always fortified with vitamin D so check the nutrition label of your favorite yogurt to make sure you are getting vitamin D.
It may sound odd to mention fiber with healing foods, but pain medications commonly prescribed after injury or surgery can cause constipation. Prunes or prune juice (along with drinking plenty of water) have a natural laxative effect that can alleviate constipation while on pain medications.
Reviewed November 2013
Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, CSSD, is the sports dietitian for Georgia State University athletics and editor-in-chief of The Academy and SCAN's Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professionals (5th ed.)